Apr 3, 2014 · 5 minutes

The free Internet is faring better in Europe than in the United States.

European lawmakers have approved new laws that clearly define and protect net neutrality in addition to banning roaming charges applied to consumers traveling in the European Union. The laws must be approved by another meeting of the European Parliament, the European Commission, and individual countries within the European Union before they would take effect.

The legislation is meant to provide access to online services "without discrimination, restriction or interference, independent of the sender, receiver, type, content, device, service or application." For example, ISPs would be barred from slowing down or "throttling" the speed at which one service's videos are delivered while allowing other services to stream at normal rates. To bastardize Gertrude Stein: a byte is a byte is a byte.

Such restrictions would prevent deals like the one Comcast recently made with Netflix, which will allow the service's videos to reach consumers faster than before. Comcast is also said to be in talks with Apple for a deal that would allow videos from its new streaming video service to reach consumers faster than videos from competitors. The Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality laws don't apply to those deals, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, so they are allowed to continue despite the threat they pose to the free Internet.

The EU's proposal would prohibit those deals in Europe and protect the idea of a free Internet where all traffic is treated the same regardless of its source. The laws aren't expected to make their way through all of the necessary lawmakers until the end of the year, but the approval granted today shows that Europe will defend the principles on which the Internet was created, even if the US won't.

Reactions from around the Web

Reuters explains why telecoms companies will continue to campaign against the rules:

The decision could limit the ability of network operators to provide quicker Internet access to bandwidth-hungry content providers such as Google or Netflix in exchange for a fee. Such agreements are becoming more common in the United States.

Operators are fighting for a share of the profits from video streaming and music downloads to offset declining revenues in their traditional phone services. European telecom operators' sales are forecast to fall for the fifth year in 2014. The New York Times expands on that explanation and notes the revenues drawn from the roaming charges that would also be banned as part of the new rules:

Telecom carriers, which have plans to put billions of euros into the Continent’s mobile and landline Internet infrastructure over the next 10 years, are concerned that they will not be able to recoup their investment from consumers’ growing appetite for online services like streaming of music and TV.

For many telecom companies, roaming also is a significant source of revenue in an increasingly competitive market where more than four major carriers in each European country typically vie for consumers’ attention.

Gigaom compares the proposal to recent developments in the United States:

Net neutrality advocates wanted a clear line to be drawn between specialized services and the normal internet, fearful that a pay-for-prioritization scenario would kill innovation by disadvantaging new startups and giving ISPs a level of control over the internet that they currently lack.

The advocates got what they wanted, unlike in the U.S. where a massive legal blunder by the FCC meant no net neutrality laws are in place. When that debacle occurred a few months back, Kroes argued that Europe could therefore offer startups a better deal on net neutrality.

Engadget is cautiously optimistic about the announcement:
So long as the legislation passes through one more hurdle -- namely approval by ministers from member states -- we're told that EU travelers will stop having to worry about extra data charges by Christmas 2015. Meanwhile, the principle of net neutrality would also be protected by law, making it illegal for European internet providers to ban, block or degrade specific web traffic depending on who's sending or receiving it. It sounds encouraging enough, even if we're not sure how much we can rely on European lawmakers to actually deliver the goods.
Pando weighs in

David Holmes wrote about the dangers the Comcast-Netflix deal poses to independent entrepreneurs and small companies when it was first announced earlier this year:

The Internet has historically been a place where anyone could post content or offer services to the same global audience, regardless of whether you’re a kid from Arkansas or a multi-national corporation. But it’s becoming more like cable TV where content providers have to bring loads to cash to the table before companies like Time Warner and Cablevision will bring that content to millions of eyeballs.

That could leave small-time players like [VoteRockIt founder Matt] Hudson stuck on the Internet equivalent of grainy, limited-audience public access TV. I wrote about the reported Comcast-Apple deal when it was announced:

Contrary to the narrative crafted by net neutrality activists, Comcast isn’t dabbling in back room deals that subtly undermine the idea of a free Internet where all data is treated equally. It’s created a system through which it is able to convince even net neutrality supporters like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to pay for improved performance, to get Apple to pay for the ability to reach consumers at a decent speed, to become even larger in the ISP market, and to make donations to the lawmakers tasked with keeping it in check.

But let’s go ahead and focus on the news that Apple is developing a streaming media service through which it could tighten its grip on the digital media market and, because this is Apple we’re talking about, keep rumors of an aluminum-clad television set alive. Surely that’s more important than the systematic destruction of the ideals on which the technologies that would enable that service were founded. Gotta watch those “Breaking Bad” reruns, after all. I then wrote about the FCC's unwillingness to defend the free Internet after Wheeler said that deals like that aren't covered by existing net neutrality laws:

Splitting issues that could affect the foundation of the Internet and allowing companies like Comcast to hamstring the greatest technological innovation in human history — or at least the innovation just behind man-made fire and wine — because the FCC wants to focus on semantics is insane. The Internet isn’t just the series of tubes connecting Comcast’s infrastructure to our homes: it’s the whole damned thing, from the servers operated by companies like Netflix all the way down to the cables in our homes.

Comcast might not be violating net neutrality laws, but it’s certainly violating the spirit behind them. It’s about time the FCC did something about that. [Image by balleyne]